Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

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I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

doctor who brain morbius doctors timeless child chibnall hinchcliffe holmes harper jo martin hartnell first tectuen boundary

It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“It’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

doctor who timeless children cybermen cyber master gallifrey time lord supremacy rassilon comic panopticon

It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

doctor who timeless children hell bent classic tardis peter capaldi jodie whittaker rachel talalay jamie magnus stone

It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Comic Book Review | Doctor Who: Supremacy of the Cybermen

Supremacy of the Cybermen doctor who review titan comics george mann cavan scott ivan rodriguez rassilon

Granted, there’s perhaps a value in questioning the merit of this. Supremacy of the Cybermen is, first and foremost, a continuity laden romp. It really is drenched in it – appearances from every Doctor are one thing, but going so far as to reference Looms is quite another. The extent to which the story works on its own terms is debatable; it’s a fairly basic, perfunctory plot, one that serves primarily to set up the monster runaround rather than anything more substantial. Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.

My thoughts on the Titan Comics Doctor Who crossover event.

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Doctor Who Review: Heaven Sent

doctor who review heaven sent steven moffat title card rachel talalay time vortex gallifrey veil diamond

How long is eternity?

I’ve been looking forward to this episode for a very long time, as it happens; the idea of a single hander episode was rather intriguing, to say the least. I love it when Doctor Who is experimental with the format (evidenced by my more-positive-than-the-masses reaction to Sleep No More) and this seemed like a really fascinating prospect. Admittedly, I was also a little apprehensive – it seemed like such a departure from the norm, it’d be difficult to say exactly whether or not it genuinely, honestly would work.

Thankfully, it did!

First of all, it’s a wonderful story – the ultimate Steven Moffat puzzle box, where the Doctor is forced to confront his own grief. It’s exceptionally well told, with some wonderful moments; Heaven Sent works as an excellent character study, giving us some fantastic insights into the Doctor. A stand out sequence, I’d argue, is where the Doctor jumps out of the window, and we end up in his “mind palace”, as it were: by flashing back to what had appeared to be a series of fairly innocuous actions, we get a genuinely inspired sequence that does a better job of conveying just how intelligent our hero is than any other scene in recent memory. It was hugely impressive stuff.

In fact, the TARDIS “mind palace” concept was a rather wonderful conceit for the episode to use, which they got a lot of mileage out of. Obviously, with something like this, it’s difficult to convey exposition to the audience, since the Doctor wouldn’t exactly have someone to talk to – but here Moffat came up with a brilliant reason for him to have someone to talk to. He’s talking to Clara (or, arguably, to the audience) and it feeds into a larger examination of his grief at her death. It’s a very effective concept.

The broader, overarching story, was extremely intelligent as well – and actually rather brutal too really. This is surely the most excruciating torture the Doctor has ever been put through, no? Interestingly – and this is something I only picked up on on my second viewing – the Doctor actually realises what’s going on before the audience do. There’s a moment (pictured below) where he stares off into the the distance, and it all comes back to him. He starts begging Clara to let him lose, for once, because he knows about all the pain he’s facing. That’s a fascinating aspect that really enhances the overall story, and, in fact, adds to the ways in which the episode establishes just how keenly intelligent the Doctor is – he cracks the puzzle box before we do.

doctor who review heaven sent peter capaldi steven moffat rachel talalay stuart biddlecomb diamond wall eternity bird shepherd's boy

Of course, none of this would have worked without Peter Capaldi.

Capaldi – as I think everyone has already pointed out by this stage – is a phenomenal actor. That’s it, in a nutshell. It’s difficult to unpack that statement as much as he deserves through simply textual analysis; I want, or rather, I need a video to accompany this, just to show the sheer skill of his performance.

Capaldi does a wonderful job of showing the Doctor’s vulnerability; backed up against the wall, no way out. Finally, he’s run out of corridor. (Wasn’t that such a fantastic line?) It’s a really nuanced, subtle performance, and Capaldi does such an impressive job at conveying the raw emotions of the Doctor – we are genuinely, truly lucky to have him on the show. Honestly, we should be treasuring every minute he’s on screen; here’s hoping he remains in the role for a very long time indeed.

Similarly, plaudits must be directed (haha) towards Rachel Talalay who did an exceptional job of directing this episode – which, as you can imagine, would likely have been pretty damn difficult. A moment that stood out to me (which probably is a strange one to pick up on) was when the Doctor was digging; there was a slow fade between different colour palettes to convey the progression of time, which was remarkably effective. Similarly impressive was the transition between a shot of the skull, and Peter Capaldi’s face, which hints at what was to come. There are some great visuals throughout, and it’s all stunningly well realised; it’s worth paying heed to the cinematographer Stuart Biddlecomb and set designer Michael Pickwoad as well.

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Admittedly though – and I recognise completely that this is missing the point entirely – the moment that elicited the greatest reaction from me was, in fact, the return of Gallifrey. After nearly ten years, it genuinely seems like Gallifrey is back. The Twelfth Doctor is the first Doctor of the new series to walk on contemporary Gallifrey – I think probably the first we’ve seen do so on screen since the Sixth Doctor. This is a big moment.

The actual shot of Gallifrey is something I really, really love. It’s fantastic in how it’s presented – it looks much more realistic, and far less romanticised, than the one we saw in Sound of the Drums. We’re not viewing Gallifrey through rose tinted glasses anymore, and you can see that immediately from this establishing shot.

That, or the CGI budget is better since 2007. It’s definitely one of them, at any rate.

I’m quite excited for tonight’s episode, actually. Moffat and co seem to be about to invoke the half human aspect of the TV Movie, which I must admit, I find a very exciting prospect. I’m always trepidant about rewriting the lore (I was a little on edge when Capaldi was confessing he left Gallifrey because he was afraid, not because he was bored) but to take a half hearted dodgy retcon from the TV Movie and make it into something genuinely compelling… it’s got a lot of potential as an idea, that’s all I’m saying. (I think perhaps I’d prefer that to Ashildr being the Hybrid, because then at least we’re looking at something that reaches back into the past, rather than both aspects of this arc being new for this series.)

Still, regardless of what happens tonight, Heaven Sent was genuinely impressive. I really enjoyed it, and I think I’ll actually give it a 10/10.

After all, it was one hell of an episode.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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K9 vs Omega Movie in Production (Seriously!)

doctor who k9 timequake omega bob baker dave martin nick park john leeson 2017 paul tams australia disney xd sleuth cloo channel 5 jetix

I had to check the date after reading this. It’s not April 1st. October 24th has no particular prank related relevance. This is not a hoax, as far as I know.

First, though, the press release:

The film “K9-TIMEQUAKE” has been written by one of K9’s original creators; Bob Baker, a renowned writer of classic Doctor Who serials. Bob went on to co-write with Nick Park the Oscar and Bafta winning Wallace & Gromit series of film shorts as well as the feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The new K9 will be appearing in a multi-million dollar movie which promises to be a great action adventure set in deep space. The film will be full of dashing heroes and heroines, androids, monstrous aliens and an ultimate foe who will also be familiar to Doctor Who fans everywhere; the megalomaniac OMEGA.

Does anyone remember that Australian K9 series that was on a few years back? This movie is presumably following on from that; it’s not been explicitly confirmed, as far as I can see, but the suggestion is that this movie is taking the place of a second series of the television show. I watched a few episodes of it, back when it aired, and it was… alright, I suppose. Very reminiscent of a sort of Power Rangers type thing – it was not entirely far off from a live-action Saturday morning cartoon type thing. If you have no idea whatsoever as to what it is, I’d suggest giving this TARDIS Eruditorum article a lookover, and take a look at this trailer. I think you can find the episodes online if you look, though I’m not convinced they’re actually good enough to be worth looking for.

God knows how this is going to work, though. K9 is not really a typical lead character, given the whole robot dog thing, and Omega is tied fairly specifically into an overarching Doctor Who mythology that I don’t think they’d be able to use for this movie; Bob Baker owns Omega, but he doesn’t own the Time Lords, so I’m not sure to what extent the Omega seen in this movie would correlate with the one we’re familiar with.

Honestly, I would not be surprised at all if this movie was cancelled, or didn’t reach the sort of scale that they’re suggesting here – perhaps it’ll be reduced down into a TV Movie, specifically.

Mostly, though, this is just completely and utterly bizarre. Certainly, I’ll be following it with keen interest – this sort of nonsense is right up my alley, frankly. Weird stuff that’s tangentially relevant to Doctor Who? Sure, sign me up.

Related:

Doctor Who Series 9 Episode Reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Day of the Doctor

doctor who the day of the doctor review poster hd matt smith david tennant john hurt jenna coleman billie piper steven moffat nick hurran

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I went to see The Day of the Doctor in cinema. It was one hell of an atmosphere, which was both brilliant, and, at times, completely surreal. (One of the strangest sights I’ve seen in a long while was a Matt Smith lookalike, in full purple frock coat costume, standing in line to buy a Big Mac)

There were so many people there – some in full costume, others with David Tennant T-Shirts (I personally preferred my Colin Baker shirt, but hey) and many more with sonic screwdrivers and scarves. It was a really, really fantastic sight to see – hundreds of people, who perhaps wouldn’t normally talk or know each other, all together because of one little TV show. That was one of the best parts of the evening, really – seeing, for example, someone who could have watched An Unearthly Child, way back at the start, here today to watch this 50th Anniversary special.

The opening titles were lovely; to see that old howlaround effect from fifty years ago on the big screen was fantastic, and a little bit heartwarming. There were plenty of other little moments like that as well, some more overt than others. My own personal favourite reference to the past was the Doctor’s promise – “Never cruel or cowardly. Never gives in and never gives up” being the maxim that Terrance Dicks used to describe the Doctor’s character. Other, more subtle ones filled the episode as well – Clara works at Coal Hill School, with Ian Chesterton, the code for the Vortex Manipulator is the date and time of An Unearthly Child’s first broadcast, etc etc.

From there, then, we’re introduced to our current Doctor (how strange it is to think of him otherwise), Matt Smith. Right from the off, he’s brilliant. As expected really; I don’t think Matt Smith has ever given a poor performance. The same goes for Jenna Coleman, who does a great job as the Doctor’s best friend, and later conscience.

The other actors all give stellar performances as well – Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver do great work as the new UNIT family. It was also really wonderful to see David Tennant back – he was my first Doctor, and it was really really exciting to see him back, as the Doctor, once again.

John Hurt, is, of course, the actor around whom all the questions were asked. Obviously, the questions weren’t going to be about his acting prowess – it’s John Hurt for goodness’ sake!

It’s his role in Doctor Who that people were, understandably, curious about. He was fantastic; he acted as the embodiment of the classic series, asking pertinent questions about just who he becomes (“Why are you so afraid of being grown ups?”) Mocking and sarcastic, his dynamic with Matt and David was what really made this special special.

In fairness, however, it may well have worked better with Paul McGann in that part – given that he was part of the Classic series, he could perhaps have better served as it’s voice. Given that has all been and gone though – and John Hurt really was amazing – there’s little point in wishing for what could have been…

Nick Hurran did a fantastic job with the direction – viewing it in 3D, there was a real depth to the visuals, which I think added another dimension (a third dimension!) to the episode. A few sequences which stand out would be the Eleventh Doctor under the TARDIS at the beginning, and the three Doctors together in the painting towards the end.

Steven Moffat deserves a fair amount of praise for this I think. He said a while back that this was the most difficult episode to write because there was so much riding on it, and so many people to please – for me, at least, the episode was a success. Every aspect of the plot linked in together perfectly – the story with UNIT and the Zygons mirroring the problem faced by John Hurt’s Doctor. (Some of the bits with Elizabeth I, however, were cringeworthy at best, and at other times completely inappropriate.)

My only gripe, I suppose, is losing RTD’s version of the Time War, a concept which I really loved. Still, I’m relatively sure there’s a way to reconcile the two interpretations – that’s what fanfiction is for, no?

Despite that though, the return of Gallifrey – through the work of all thirteen Doctors, no less! – was a moment of triumph which worked really, really well here. The montage of clips with previous Doctors was very nice, and rather fitting as well.

There’s a really lovely moment, which I think is worth mentioning. It’s at the point where Matt Smith tells his fellow Doctors that there is, in fact, another way to end the Time War.

David Tennant turns around and, in a moment of jubilation, high fives the TARDIS.

That’s absolutely fantastic, and it mirrors, I think, the way I reacted to this special –  I really, really loved it.

50/50, as it were.

Related:

50 Days of the Doctor Who 50th

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